6 Things I Want You To Know After Teaching Yoga & Meditation to First Responders

photo: Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

photo: Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Our first responders are so important. They are the ones that go into the fire and move towards danger, while the rest of us are trying to get free from it. They keep us safe.

Yes, they have training in order to do this from years of study both in the classroom and on the job to assist in an emergency. With this insight and knowledge, they can protect us, and many, myself included, feel safe around them. However, they are human; just like the rest of us, and when they’re put in vulnerable positions, fear and anxiety come up.

This is where yoga and meditation come in. Having these tools in your back pocket can assist in reducing that fear and anxiety, by calming the central nervous system.  During our yoga practice, we use conscious breathing. Both through this conscious breathing and conscious execution of yoga postures, we strengthen nerve transmissions from the body to the brain, decreasing our stress and muscular tension. Through this, we are able to spend more time in our parasympathetic nervous system (known as “rest and digest”), allowing anxiety, fear and anger to leave our minds. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of sympathetic nervous system where our “fight or flight” responses kick in.

I am sure that you can imagine, first responders engage their sympathetic nervous system when responding to an emergency.  Coming down from this state, can be difficult, in fact – sometimes we don’t even realize we are in this state.

Being human means we are constantly asking our bodies to engage. Our sympathetic nervous system can kick-in for so many reasons – a tough day at work, a difficult conversation with a loved one, loss, or trauma from a past experience that is with you (PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder).

All of that said, the first responders I have had the privilege of teaching have taught me so much. Here’s what we can learn:

Mindfulness is for everyone

  • Whether you are someone who engages in fitness on a regular basis and consider yourself “hard core” or you are working on building regimen, mindfulness is for you.

  • Everybody could use feeling better – according to the Anxiety and Depressions Association of America anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.

 We are more alike than different

  • Our first responders are people like the rest of us

  • Many are given hero status (often deservedly) others have been vilified in political conversations.

  • We are all just people with families and emotions, with light and darkness in our personalities.

  • Taking this perspective to any and every-one we meet will make the world a better place

 Develop a healthy habit

  • It doesn’t take long. Start with 21 days (that is less than one month), and 5 minutes a day.

  • You do not need to be the Buddha himself

  • Many of the first responders, like you, work incredibly long hours with distractions just like you. They also don’t have much time to fully commit to themselves in the day, never knowing when an important call or alert might come in.

 Be open

  • Step outside your comfort zone. Many of the first responders I worked with would never have dreamed of doing this kind of thing - their willingness to learn led them to life-long skills.

  • We never know where just being open can take us.

  • You have the choice every-day to continue to be a work in progress, and to learn, make the choice to continue on your journey.

 Have more empathy for yourself

  • Forming a new habit will not happen overnight. But, just like most things worth doing, it takes time and patience.

  • Don’t give up if you have one tough experience, be willing to keep trying and investing.

  • Speak kindly to yourself when you have a hard time (maybe use the mantra: “I am ok”)

  • Mindfulness starts with getting clear on how we speak to ourselves

 Giving back is medicine for the soul (read this one twice)

  • We feel good by making others feel good

  • When you spend time investing in yourself, it radiates outward, and therefore is an investment in the greater good.

  • My experience working with first responders is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a yoga instructor thus far, knowing I am helping to make a difference for those that protect me and my loved ones, is the greatest feeling I can ever feel.

Consider setting some time aside to ask yourself “what are the healthy habits are that I want to develop more of in my life?”.  Maybe write them down and put them in a place where you are can look at them every day. Remember to start small, and build from there, in no time, you will be able to look back and reap the reward of how far you have come.